The Draculas in the Middle

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”

Hammer Films’ Dracula series initially were linked like the chapters of a book. Thus the second chapter of the series, “Dracula–Prince of Darkness,” literally begins with a re-cap of the closing moments of their initial film “Dracula” (known here as “Horror of Dracula”). The closing moments of “Dracula–Prince of Darkness” see the Count sinking into the frigid waters of his castle’s moat.

“Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” was the first Hammer Dracula not directed by Terence Fisher. Cameraman-turned-director Freddie Francis was in charge and although the cinematographer on the film was Hammer regular Arthur Grant, “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” managed to look unlike any other Hammer gothic with color effects that more resembled a Mario Bava film. Also, it gave star Christopher Lee the greatest number of lines to date. (For most of “Horror of Dracula” and all of “Dracula–Prince of Darkness” his “lines” largely consisted of hissing like a very angry house-cat.) While the dialogue that “John Elder” (aka Anthony Hinds) came up with was hardly Shakespeare, it did manage to convince that this Count Dracula was one very evil fellow.

Now to the plot. Even though the Count “died” at the climax of “Dracula–Prince of Darkness,” his castle remains as a visible symbol of his evil power. The shadow it casts even reaches to the village church, putting the village priest into a permanent funk and convincing his superior, the Monsignor of Clausenberg, that an exorcism is in order. But the priest is too frightened to even approach the evil place and losing his footing on the uneven terrain, plunges down to the banks of mountain stream where the corpse of Dracula lies embedded in the ice. Blood from a head-gash drips onto the ice and revives Dracula who, upon discovering that he has effectively been barred from his castle by the Monsignor’s prayers and a large golden cross, sets out for Clausenberg to avenge himself. In this film and its sequel the Count frequently comes off as a brassed-off Little Englander, endlessly infuriated by the affronts offered him by lesser mortals.

With the cowardly priest now recruited as his slave, Dracula plans to take the Monsignor’s comely niece as his latest bride and she will personally remove the offending cross that her uncle erected. Thing go well for the Count until they don’t. The niece has a beaux who doesn’t believe in supernatural stuff until the undead count educates him. In a hand-to-hand struggle Dracula falls from the ramparts of his castle, only to land on the cross that the enslaved niece had tossed into the ravine.

“Taste the Blood of Dracula,” the next chapter of the tale opens with an overly-chatty Cockney peddler, trying to drum up business among the locals being tossed from the coach he had been travelling in. Attracted by unearthly screams, he witnesses the final moments of the impaled Count Dracula. (At least one commentator has remarked that in “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave,” there were no screams–but the exigencies of plot took precedence.) Helping himself to the late Dracula’s ring, cloak and clasp–a nifty item not heretofore seen–but apparently leaving the golden cross, he decamps to England. All would have been well. except that the enterprising fellow also scooped up a vial of Dracula’s dried blood.

Ten years pass. Lord Courtley, a typical Nineties Decadent and a devotee of the Black Arts, covets these relics and manages to convince a trio of bored, but wealthy bourgeois gentlemen to pony up the thousand guineas needed to procure them. It’s not really clear what Courtley was intending. Was he hoping to revive the Count by drinking his re-liquefied blood? If so why did he offer it to each of the three witnesses? Was he hoping to create four Count Draculas? I suspect that he simply saw the blood as an Evil multi-vitamin that would allow him to become an even nastier piece of work than he already is. Things don’t go quite as Courtley had intended. The potion convulses him in agony and the frightened would-be bad boys kick and stomp him to death before fleeing the scene. Now Anthony Hinds’ script gets tricky. The dead Courtley gets buried in a cloud of dust, and the dust parts to reveal not the dead Courtley but the living Dracula. (So, if all had drunk the blood, would there have been four Draculas?) Officially revived, Dracula announces for the audience’s benefit that he will now avenge the death of his servant Lord Courtley.

“Taste the Blood of Dracula” enjoys a good reputation in the Hammer film family because of Hinds’ treatment of Victorian hypocrisy and repression. (Interesting aside: in “Dracula Has Risen the Grave,” the occupant of the coffin “borrowed” by the priest for Dracula’s use died in 1906, which would make these two films Edwardian, rather than Victorian gothics–and, in fact, “Taste the Blood of Dracula” would be taking place in the Georgian year of 1916!) Dracula fittingly uses the bullied children of the three hypocritical offenders to kill them. In this film Lee gets limited lines–just enough to present Dracula as a heartless bastard who uses and discards people like so many tissues. One of the female children he even turns into a vampire so that she can seduce the son of another of his enemies and, having done her job, fatally re-drains her. (A real Employer-from-Hell, in “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” he treated a barmaid he had vampirized in a similar matter.) This was director Peter Sasdy’s maiden effort for Hammer and he would go on to better things–“Countess Dracula,” the masterful “Hands of the Ripper” and “Nothing But the Night,” again starring Lee and co-produced by him, but not for Hammer.

The ending to “Taste the Blood of Dracula” is probably the strangest of any Hammer Dracula film.  The Count has been using a de-consecrated chapel as his headquarters. The surviving son, hoping to save the surviving daughter whom he loves, invades the chapel, removes the various Satanic insignia placed there by Courtley, and sets the altar up as if preparing for Mass. He also bars the chapel doors with a cross. Trapped in the chapel, Dracula attacks the lovers, even using the pipes of the chapel organ as makeshift javelins. But when he smashes the stained glass window over the altar, a glowing cross is projected onto his back, and Dracula apparently experiences the vampire version of a bad trip. Suddenly the chapel is bathed in light, hymns can be heard and all that holiness proves too much for Dracula who crashes onto the altar and turns to dust, leaving the young lovers to exit to the strains of one of James Bernard’s loveliest Hammer themes.

The virtues of “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” and “Taste the Blood of Dracula” reside in their production values and the level of acting their participants brought to their respective projects. The plots were never much–just enough to get things going–and I thought that Lee looked a bit bored by “Taste the Blood of Dracula.” How excited could you get with lines like “The first,” The second,” “The third” and “I have no further use of you”? But if we consider that these films resided in that genre-ghetto known as “The Horror Movie,” you must admit they are some of nicer houses on their block. After the odd-man-out “Scars of Dracula”–which wholly blows the pre-existing chronology to Hell–Hammer created two more linked Dracula tales, “Dracula, A.D. 1972” and “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” which brought the Count up-to-date and remodeled him not as a vampire, or King of the Vampires, but as a fully-fledged demon with a permanent seat at Satan’s Round Table. But that’s another story altogether.

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